By Lauren Wise
By New Times
By Amanda Savage
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Troy Farah
By New Times
By Derek Askey
These days, however, no one holds such a simultaneously exalted and obscure position in popular music as George Clinton. Even though he shares a surname with the current president, has been sampled to death and has more funk in his pinkie than the Chili Peppers have in their wettest dreams, Clinton's is both the puppet master and another face on the street. It's a conundrum that doesn't get him down.
"I know as well as anyone that there comes a time when they think you're finished and they want you to get the hell out of Dodge. But, hey, I don't know nothin' else," he says. "I haven't cried while we've been down. When we didn't have a hit record, when we weren't happening, I was the first one to say fuck me--fuck me!
"The thing is, though, that no one expected this shit to get this popular again. No one thought One Nation [Under a Groove] would ever be worth anything, let alone enough to steal." Part of his anonymity is because of the fact that Clinton's Parliament/Funkadelic glory days are nearly 20 years in the past. That's right, children of the 70s, it's time to count those fingers and toes. Next year will, indeed, mark the 20th anniversary of Parliament's first big hit, "Up for the Down Stroke."
Clinton himself started much earlier than that. According to his self-created and -promoted legend, George Clinton was born in 1940 in an outhouse in Kannapolis, North Carolina. Raised in Washington, D.C., Clinton moved to Newark, New Jersey, with his family when the future Atomic Dog was still just a pup.
Even longtime Parliament/Funkadelic fans are surprised to learn that Uncle Jam began his musical career in earnest at the Uptown Tonsorial Parlor, a New Jersey barbershop where Clinton, like Chuck Berry before him, made a living as a hair bender. Clinton's musical career had begun in high school with a group called the Parliaments. But it took the barbershop's money ($700 to $800 per week, according to Clinton) and connections (all the local doo-woppers came in for a trim) to set Clinton on the fast track. Photos of Clinton from that time are shocking. It seems impossible that the painfully straight geek in the photos--complete with pompadour, skinny tie and Frankie Lymon grin--could someday become a 70s psychedelic trendsetter who favored metallic space suits, three-cornered hats and platform-heeled hip boots.
Clinton's transformation into the acid-soaked, funk-psychedelia king, Dr. Funkenstein, began when he and the Parliaments moved to Detroit in the mid-'60s. Earlier in that decade, the group had fulfilled a dream by cutting demos for Berry Gordy's Motown label. While Motown never got behind the group wholeheartedly, Clinton came away impressed by the sense of family that Gordy nurtured in his artists. It was the genesis of Clinton's own musical family to come. In 1967, just as he was about to give up music and return to the barbershop full-time, Clinton and the Parliaments recorded his original "(I Wanna) Testify" for a small Detroit label, Revilot Records. The record hit, and revived both the group and the label. Revilot owner Lebaron Taylor immediately took the band back into the studio and cut another batch of singles, including a long-out-of-print cover of the Beatles' "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band" and a tune called "Good Old Music" that was the first to list "the Funkadelics" as co-writers.
The sound that Clinton's ever-enlarging group began to develop countered Motown's smooth soul. It took many of its cues from Detroit's other musical revolution--led by proto-metal, prepunk bands like MC5 and Iggy Pop and the Stooges. From these all-white, Ann Arbor-based groups, Clinton learned about stacks of Marshall amps and screaming guitars. In a reverse of the usual black-white trend, Clinton took the best parts of this white music and used it to improve his own already potent brew. In 1969, when Taylor split with the band's money and the legal rights to its name, Clinton simply began using the name Funkadelic. When he regained legal title to the Parliament name a few years later, the two-name, two-band concept was born.
The original plan was for Parliament to be the hit machine, the group in which dancey, mainstream singles would reside. Funkadelic was to be the experimental vehicle, dedicated to serious influences like jazz and the then-emerging electronic technologies. Early Funkadelic albums, like the self-titled debut and its follow-up, Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow (which was recorded and mixed in one day), followed this formula. The album to own from these early years is 1971's Maggot Brain, on which Clinton's psychedelic-funk-metal formula first began to jell. Eventually, though, the lines blurred, and both bands, which had always shared personnel, came to be called the "Parliafunkadelicment Thang" (Clinton's term), or the P-Funk All-Stars.
Although it made an album, Osmium, for the tiny Invictus label in 1970, Parliament didn't really kick into gear until "Up for the Down Stroke" hit in 1974. Signed to Neil Bogart's Casablanca Records, the Parliament crew continued a gold-and-platinum run that included albums like Chocolate City, Mothership Connection, Funkentelechy Vs. the Placebo Syndrome and Gloryhallastoopid--or Pin the Tail on the Funky. Along the way, it invented its own silly, space-jive lexicon. When the single "Tear the Roof Off the Sucker" from Mothership Connection rose to No. 15 on the pop charts, Clinton and his herd were the most popular funk act in America, their only rivals being Earth, Wind and Fire. Parliament's success convinced Warner Bros. to sign Funkadelic, which proceeded to change course and go mainstream. Funkadelic's next four albums, Hardcore Jollies, Uncle Jam Wants You, The Electric Spanking of War Babies and, particularly, One Nation Under a Groove, were all classics. Out of print since their release in the mid-'70s, these albums have recently been rereleased by Priority Records in a move Clinton says is piracy. The label says it has a signed contract. Clinton, who owns the master tapes, says he's going to put the albums out on his own One Nation label early next year.